Changing Equine Disciplines
Pivoting for Lifelong Learning Opportunities
By Tania Millen
Riders often pursue the same horse sport for years, competing up and down the levels depending on their horse and how life unfolds. But some riders choose to change disciplines altogether — by choice, necessity, or because their horses want to do something different. It’s something riders at all ages and life stages may experience but the learning curve for a new sport can be steep. We interviewed three riders who are embracing new-to-them horse sports and meeting the challenges that brings.
From Long Gallops to Long Trots
When Tina Thompson’s 16.3-hand off-the-track Thoroughbred Cleo stopped enjoying three-day eventing, Thompson decided to try something new. She grew up doing the Quarter Horse show circuit in Alberta but got hooked on eventing after seeing cross-country for the first time in her twenties. However, her horse Cleo didn’t have the ability to jump bigger fences and Thompson felt stuck doing the same sport she’d been pursuing for over ten years.
“I think she was as sick of eventing as I was,” says Thompson. “We went to Florida a couple of times and went around the Alberta events for five or six years. I did a preliminary event with her and then went back to training level.
“It felt like neither of our hearts were in it,” she says. “We were on the Alberta high performance team, but she was always going to be frenetic. I was just going through the motions — still learning but there was less desire. It was more mechanical.”
Tina Thompson eventing with Zen. When Thompson grew tired of eventing she switched to endurance riding and has never looked back. Photo: Tina Thompson Collection
Having read that any horse can do 25 miles, Thompson put Cleo in the trailer and went to a 25-mile endurance ride.
“I really enjoyed it because it’s a completely different thing,” she says.
Endurance riding was a whole new world. Thompson had to learn about the nutrition, shoeing, and workload Cleo needed to excel at a very different sport.
“I got really good at being vulnerable and open-minded and then doing lots of research about what people said,” Thompson shares.
“Cleo could trot from morning to night,” she says. “I still did some arena work because she was broke to death. You don’t just go out on the trail and run your heart out. But I got lucky and she took to it like a duck to water. She wanted to go all day long.
“Cleo had this big swinging, effortless trot,” Thompson says. “We never had to try very hard. I just got really, really lucky. And the next steps always made sense.”
“Cleo had this big swinging, effortless trot,” says Thompson of her former eventing horse that took to endurance like a duck to water. “She wanted to go all day long.” Photo: Tina Thompson Collection
Thompson was fortunate to hook up with some of the best endurance riders in Western Canada and groomed for one of them at the World Equestrian Games.
“I just picked her brain. There’s lots of time to chat when you’re riding 50 or 100 miles,” she laughs.
After a few years of endurance riding, Thompson entered the prestigious Tevis Cup 100-mile endurance ride held every year in the rocky hills of California (CA).
“I talked about entering Tevis with a few people and it raised some eyebrows, but I had nothing to lose,” says Thompson. “All the stars probably aren’t going to line up again in my lifetime. I didn’t finish but neither did 65 percent of the people that entered, so we were in good company.”
Since then, Thompson has lost Cleo to health issues. But she believes that horses provide lifelong learning opportunities. She encourages other riders to be vulnerable, brave, and take opportunities that come along. You never know where they may lead.
Learning to Spin and Slide
Kelly Plitz rode Dialadream, a Quarter Horse mare, on the 1984 Canadian three-day-eventing Olympic team.
“I discovered eventing in 1978 and then we just kept moving up [the levels],” Plitz recalls. “We would go to events every weekend. We did that for decades.
“Before I evented, I did English and Western, Quarterama, the AQHA shows. I dabbled in a bit of everything,” she says.
In the 1980s, Plitz taught a reining rider how to ride dressage-type circles and those lessons sparked an interest in reining that never went away.
“About five years ago I stopped eventing,” she says. “I just didn’t want to do it anymore. I wanted to do something different. But I needed to ride. I still needed horses. So I started reining.”
Plitz found a high-quality coach, bought a horse, and started showing.
Olympian Kelly Plitz with Dialadream competing in Germany in 1982.
“They’re a different type of horse and it was a huge learning curve,” she says. “It took a while for me not to look like an event rider trying to ride a reining horse. In the first year, I was lucky if I got a score.”
Plitz explains that reining is like dressage — the aids shouldn’t be obvious — except the horse has to carry itself while being ridden on a slack rein. Plitz found riding on a long rein with one hand difficult.
“My other hand would just grab the reins automatically,” she says. “It would just happen because I’ve been riding with two hands for so long. Then I would be eliminated from the class and get a zero. I had to really hook my right hand under my belt so that I wouldn’t grab the reins.”
Learning to do a sliding stop was just as challenging.
“When you see cross-country riders jump down a bank or something and they throw their arm up for balance it’s called ‘hailing a cab,’” says Plitz. “Well, I was doing that [when doing a sliding stop].” But she’s persevered and found a new passion.
Being a horse trainer at heart, Plitz has been bringing along youngsters rather than buying finished show horses to compete. And she’s got plans.
“I want to venture down south,” she says, explaining that she’d like to produce a three-year-old for the futurity classes in Oklahoma plus ride in the Congress Quarter Horse Show in Columbus, Ohio.
“It’s a lot different than what I used to do,” says Plitz. “Everybody hoots and hollers when you’re in the show pen and they play live music. The timing with the run down to the sliding stop is similar to going down to a jump, although you do exactly the opposite. The spinning is amazing. Once you sit on a reining horse, you’re hooked.”
“I’m really loving it,” she says. “It’s a ton of fun.”
Kelly Plitz found reining a “huge learning curve” after eventing. “Once you sit on a reining horse, you’re hooked,” she says. Plitz is pictured competing Diamond For Your Chic (left) and the four-year-old That Girls Nite (right). Photos: Plitz Photo Collection
From Jumpers to Rodeo
Colten Powell grew up in a horsey family in Alberta and started show jumping at age 10. Two years ago, at age 15, he was competing in 1.20 to 1.30 metre FEI children’s jumper classes in Thermal, CA. But then he went to rodeo school and hasn’t looked back.
Colten Powell started show jumping at age 10 and within five years was competing in the FEI children’s jumper classes in Thermal, CA. Photo: Robin Powell
“I wanted to take a break [from jumpers] and my Dad rode bucking horses for a long time,” Powell says. “So I signed up for rodeo school.”
After that, he started competing in saddle bronc classes at local rodeos.
“I’ve been going to a lot of amateur rodeos,” says Powell. There, he enters novice and open saddle bronc competitions. But Powell also rides in novice saddle bronc classes at professional rodeos, and at 17 he’s hoping to qualify for the 2022 Canadian Finals Rodeo (CFR).
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“I think everybody should try a little bit of everything,” says Colten Powell, who at age 15 switched from show jumping to bronc riding. He enjoys the lifestyle and other benefits from making the switch, and believes in trying different disciplines to find a sport you like that you want to stick with. “At the end of the day, it’s all horses.” Photo: Gralyn Photography
Rodeo is a big change from show jumping but Powell is enjoying the switch.
“I like to travel around and go to different places,” he says. “At the rodeos there’s lots of music playing so it’s entertaining.”
Accessibility, finances, and comradery are factors, too.
“I can go to five different rodeos every weekend pretty much all summer long,” he says. “It’s cheaper [than show jumping] and the cost-to-payout ratio is definitely a lot better.”
Also, the top three riders by money earned will qualify for the 2022 CFR novice saddle bronc competition. So attending more rodeos means that Powell has a better chance of earning one of those spots.
“I try to rodeo with a couple other guys,” Powell says. “We’re all going to the same place so we may as well jump in together. This weekend we’re in Williams Lake, British Columbia on Thursday and then Ponoka, Alberta the next day. So there’s a lot of driving.”
His commitment is paying off.
“I got a scholarship to go to Casper, Wyoming in the fall,” Powell says. “I’ll be on a college rodeo team and they’ll pay for my school. You have a coach and there’s a lot of bucking horses, so I’ll get lots of practice.”
“I believe in shopping around to find a sport that you like and you want to stick with or want to get really good at,” he says. “I think everybody should try a little bit of everything. At the end of the day, it’s all horses.”
Thompson, Plitz, and Powell have all found that pivoting from one horse sport to another reinvigorated their enthusiasm for horses. Having boldly pursued change, they’re now using their hard-earned horsemanship knowledge to succeed at new horse sports. It’s a great way for riders to be excited about the future without abandoning their passion for horses.
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Main Photo: Tina Thompson on Cleo at the iconic Cougar Rock, competing in The Tevis Cup 100-mile endurance race in 2013. Photo: Bill Gord of Gord/Baylor Photography